Performing on the brink of life or death
SOLO McCabe play Irish and Country takes to the Townhall Theatre Cavan
Anyone reared on reruns of the Marx Brothers and Laurel and Hardy on Irish telly in the 1960s and ‘70s is certain of at least one thing: banana skins are to be avoided at all costs. However, Peter Gowen embraced a banana skin as an artistic lifebuoy when first performing the one-man show ‘Country and Irish’.
The actor is currently touring the Pat McCabe penned play and is arriving in Cavan next week. At the drama’s core is Donie Burris, a character “at the end of his tether”. Donie seeks to overcome his troubles, which include a treacherous girlfriend, an overbearing mother and the local Mafia by imagining himself as ‘The star of his own gangster movie’.
When the Celt rings Peter on Thursday morning, he’s in a flat above the Glen Theatre in Manorhamilton about to set off for the Backstage Longford, having performed in Castlebar the night before to a “tremendous” response. McCabe’s own back yard of Cavan comes this Thursday (May 11) on the tour schedule.
Country and Irish’s first incarnation was as a radio play, having been aired on BBC Radio 3 back in 2013. Peter found the Clones writer both generous and receptive to the idea of adapting it for the stage.
“Our job was to take this slightly mad series of ideas and make it into something coherent, and it worked very well,” recalls Peter.
While everyone knows McCabe as a novelist, Peter suspects he is under-appreciated as a playwright.
“I don’t see any reason whyhis plays shouldn’t be in the Abbey - I think he is a quintessential Irish writer, he combines all the best things about Irish writing - hugely imaginative, beautiful use of language and a very caustic social commentary,” says Peter, his Youghal roots not easily discernible in his accent, perhaps softened by a quarter of a century living in London.
He compares McCabe’s commentary on Irish society with Synge’s Playboy of the Western World, with both delivering their message “in a very funny way and in a very beautiful way.”
“I think he’s commenting about Irish society - he’s looking at this tendency of Irish people to mythologise themselves - ‘Aren’t we great?’ We see ourselves as an heroic people who have suffered greatly, and we’re very welcoming and we’re blah blah blah. A lot of that is not true.
“And the other thing is we are always wanting someone to be in control - it was the English for a long time, then it became the British, then it was the church and now it’s the EU. We’re always desperate to have some kind of mammy outside of us.”
Peter further notes the Irish state’s longing for approval.
“I think the Irish government is desperately always nodding to either America or the EU. Any music they want to play, we will dance to it, no problem. And I don’t think it’s in the best interest of the country to be honest. But I think that’s a part of growing up.
“A sociologist said that it takes seven generations to get over a community’s catastrophe, so the Famine is still with us in some ways - I don’t know if that’s true or not. It’s still there, we are still hardwired by this event and still in some ways our national behaviours are influenced by it.”
Since Peter is the only man to have taken on the role, the Celt notes he could be established as the definitive ‘Donnie Burris’. He hints there may not be too many queueing up to face the daunting challenge.
“It’s a fairly tricky piece. It takes a particular type of mad man to perform the play, and a particular kind of mad man to write it I suppose.”
“A one man show is no easy task - you are up there, it’s just you and a few lights, a few sounds and the audiences’ imagination, so a one man show is not for everybody, but certainly I’m delighted to bring the story to life.”
The Celt wonders aloud: is it terrifying to perform a one man show?
“Oh absolutely,” he eagerly admits. “OOOooohhh my God, I would rather go into a cage of lions with a match stick to defend myself sometimes than go on stage.
“The first performance of a one man show is the most terrifying thing ever! Because you know it, but you have all that adrenalin - it’s an important balance. The adrenalin means you go into a white out - it’s like, ‘Jes’ I don’t know anything, I can’t remember a single word!’”
Peter volunteers that he has penned little prompts on one of the play’s props.
“When I did it first of all I actually wrote some of the cues on the banana in my hand to remind myself, because I got stuck [in rehearsal] - I never used the banana as a cue, but I was so terrified of doing the play. But then as my wife said, these are the things you live for - being this terrified about something that’s not at all dangerous.
“Theatre has to be dangerous for the performer to be any good - it’s got to be life or death. The point is that you aren’t going to die, but it feels like that!”
Peter Gowen performs Country and Irish by Pat McCabe at the Townhall theatre, Cavan on Thursday, May 11 at 8pm. For tickets see www.townhallcavan.com